Eastern saint, local saint: the cult of St Lazarus in the West

Alex Good
Saint Lazare, Autun

In 1146 the bones of Saint Lazarus were moved a short distance from the cathedral of Saint-Nazaire in Autun to the new church of Saint Lazare, destined to be that city’s new cathedral. They were to be housed in a reconstruction of the church of Bethany in Palestine, itself built over the tomb from which Lazarus was believed to have been summoned by Christ. In the words of a fifteenth-century document claiming to be a record of an eyewitness account, Humbert bishop of Autun, accompanied by the nobility of Burgundy, commanded that ‘the lord Lazarus’ be conveyed ‘to his new house.’ The temporal honorific of ‘lord’ was no mere pious recognition of the saint’s status in heaven. The title conferred an earthly dignity. Humbert, it was said, “found among the bones of the holy martyr gloves with episcopal insignia, and a satchel with a seal proclaiming his dignity.” By the fifteenth century his status as a local figure of ecclesiastical authority was evident. What prompted the building of Saint-Lazare is less so.

Evidence of Lazarus’ veneration in the West is first found in tenth-century Germany where a handful of altar dedications record depositions of relics at secular and monastic foundations with strong imperial connections. One of the earliest records the occasion of consecration in 992 of the new cathedral at Halberstadt, in the Ottonian heartlands. Lazarus’ relics had been discovered on the island of Cyprus in the ninth century and brought back to Constantinople where the Emperor Leo VI founded a monastery in the city dedicated to him.  It may be that his relics came to Germany with Theophanu, the Greek wife of Otto II.  The Halberstadt altar dedication with its collection of topographical relics, including that of Lazarus’ tomb, recreated the landscape of the Holy Land, maybe as part of an Ottonian effort to assert themselves vis-a-vis their Byzantine contemporaries.

The Head of Lazarus, Andlau

Also in Germany, and in particular in its western parts, we can detect evidence suggesting that Lazarus, hitherto regarded in the West as simply the object of Christ’s redeeming power rather than a saint in his own right, becomes just that. The Halberstadt dedication refers to a relic of Lazarus’ tomb, whereas later eleventh- and early twelfth-century German altar dedications note the deposition of corporal relics together with the title of ‘saint’, missing at Halberstadt. Two such, at Gorze and Trier, mention the teeth of Lazarus. It is tempting to connect these with the relic of his skull, supposedly brought to Andlau in Alsace from Constantinople by the Carolingian widow of Charles the Fat, Richardis at the beginning of the tenth century, where it can still be seen.

Records of these altar depositions give clues to the purpose of the veneration of Lazarus. His relics are frequently placed with relics of Stephen, the protomartyr, which might suggest that, like Stephen, he was associated with early Church leadership in Jerusalem. Some of the dedications, such as at the abbey church of Schaffhausen, place relics of Lazarus in altars dedicated to the Holy Cross. It is possible that Lazarus, whose resurrection was understood to prefigure Christ’s own death and resurrection, was relevant to the cult of the Victorious Cross, vigorously promoted by Ottonian emperors.

Why the cult of Lazarus should find its fullest expression in Autun, in nearby Burgundy, has been the subject of much debate. Near contemporary Burgundian hagiography attributed this to the pious rescue in the eighth century of his relics from Provence threatened by Saracens.  An eleventh-century account from neighbouring Vézelay of Mary Magdalen has her fleeing persecution in Palestine together with Lazarus where he becomes its first bishop. And though the substance of the tale may be discredited, the tradition that bones believed to be Lazarus’ came to Burgundy from Provence has proved more durable.

Sites of Lazarus relics and church dedications

Did the Autun relics come from Provence or Germany and are the origins of his cult found  in either? These are not the same question, but the intersection between relic deposition and cult formation can provide insights into the latter. The cult of Lazarus at Autun can be understood as a conscious hagiographic creation with relics discovered to suit. It can also be seen as something less deliberate, the roots of which lie in German imperial promotion of Palestinian saints. These created a cluster of Lazarus dedications in the western part of the Empire, preparing the ground for his cult at Autun. However, given the slender nature of the evidence, a provisional interpretation could be that this was the product of an iterative process in which hagiography and relic deposits reinforced each other to create a saint both Palestinian and local.

Alex Good is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at University College London

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